History Cafe visits the Met with Lauren Mancia – Medieval Mysticism

This is part two of our History Cafe Visits the Met series and Lauren Mancia is back to talk about how objects and images interacted with Medieval ideas of mystical experience.  This is the podcast where we talk about the little bed (see the image below).  We were down in the main museum, not in the cloisters, and we looked at a seemingly random set of images connected by their very close connection to the spiritual practices of mysticism.

In medieval mysticism, the goal was a close union with the divine.  Most people who considered themselves mystics were aware that divine union often involves disolution of physical and bodily experience.  Some writers articulate that the physical world can only get in the way of union with the divine.  However, the images and objects we look at proved useful for a variety of spiritual practice that some found useful in advancing their goal of a closer union with the divine.  All of the images we discuss are listen below with links to their official pages from the Metropolitan Museum.  Also, I’ve listed the room numbers here so you can look at them yourself if you happen to be at the museum.

We started in Gallery 601 looking at a painting of St. Francis with the stigmata.

does mystical union look pleasant to you?


After that, we walked around the corner to Gallery 625 to find a multi-panel Nativity scene from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden.

After these two, we took a longer walk down the great stairs, through the big altar screen in Gallery 305:

Gothic altar screen, rounded arches??

And into Gallery 306 for a look at three different art works.  First we talk about a pair of much larger sculptures, one of a Pietá, and one of the Entombment of Christ.  In both of them, donors and regular people are portrayed touching and interacting with the divine body.

Which way does that accent go, anyway?
Pietà with Donors
In the Middle Ages, man bags were totally a thing...
The Entombment

After the two larger sculptures, we looked at a very intimate and quirky little object: a bed of the infant Jesus literally meant for playing with Jesus dolls.

Jesus doll sold separately - Very limited edition...
Crib of the Infant Jesus

And finally, we went back through Gallery 305 and tucked ourselves around the corner in Gallery 304 to look at a sculpture of the Visitation (with Mary and Elizabeth) where both women have rock crystal representations of their wombs.

Those aren’t quite all the images we mentioned through the course of the podcast…we also commented on the wooden Virgin and Child sculptures and on a Mary where the front opens up, but both of those comments are pretty short and you can look them up on the Met website if you want.  This should give you a good sense of what we’re describing.

Now for the food – in the last really spiritual podcast, we suggested just plain bread and water…and certainly that would make for a good mystical diet.  However, this is a dinner-length podcast, so I recommend a solid plate of fish and chips with coleslaw.  Filling, but appropriate for Catholic fast days.  Better yet, a big fried-fish sandwich with the coleslaw right on the sandwich (I love that.)  For a good piece of fried cod, the simplest way to do it is make a breading (flower, cornmeal, spices) and a liquid (eggs or milk or both).  Coat the fish in the breading, roll it in the liquid, then press it in the breading again so it’s more thickly coated.  Fry in a good high-temperature oil.  And for the slaw, I low coleslaw with about half an apple grated in with the cabbage and carrot and also a strong dose of celery seed in the dressing (mayo, cider vinegar, oregano, salt, pepper, celery seed…perhaps a little mustard if you like that sort of thing.)  Tartar sauce, potatoes in whatever form you want, and you’re all set.

And if you want biblical side-dish/beverage, I actually totally recommend milk and honey (no, seriously…)  If you haven’t tried it, take a cup of milk and warm it up just slightly – not hot, try to avoid that film forming when milk gets close to boiling – and then stir in a tablespoon or two of honey till it totally dissolves.  I promise you, it is completely delicious.

All artwork is available on the Metropolitan Museum website.  Clicking on any of the artworks above will bring you to the official Met page that describes the work and contains their information from the collection.


Jeffery Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female
Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone Books, 1998).

Jacqueline Jung, “Crystalline Wombs and Pregnant Hearts: The Exuberant
Bodies of the Katharinenthal Visitation Group,” in History in the Comic
Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person, ed. Rachel Fulton
and Bruce W. Holsinger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Jacqueline Jung, “The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of
Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination,” in Looking Beyond:
Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum
Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), 203-40.

You can also see the series of books by Bernard McGinn (Crossroad Press): The
foundations of mysticism (1991), The growth of mysticism (1994), The
flowering of mysticism: men and women in the new mysticism (1200-1350)
(1998), The harvest of mysticism in medieval Germany (1300-1500)
(2005), The varieties of vernacular mysticism (1350-1550) (2013).  I think the Flowering is my favorite, but they’re all a good introduction to mysticism in those various time periods.


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